I teach history at a Maine college, and today I was proud of my students, who, in a discussion of a novel about the American Dream, concluded that, in the end, it was unattainable for a single black mother in the 1940s.

We talked about why the main character “couldn’t make it” in the land of opportunity. Students identified racism and sexism. Then the discussion turned to poverty as a factor.

My students know this world all too well – one is on MaineCare but only until she turns 21, which will also be when her student loans start to come due. Her father is ill.

Another student’s mother is disabled, and they receive food stamps. A third student lives with her parents, one of whom works nights. The other parent, if she worked at a minimum-wage job, would lose MaineCare for her children.

What alarmed me was not just the challenges that these students face in trying to achieve some version of success in their lives by going to college, but also that they’re beginning to understand that structural forces in a fictional character’s life could also apply to them, and that their struggles are not theirs alone.

In telling their own stories, they acknowledged a broken system of social services in the state of Maine.

We need to help these young people fight for changes that matter in their own lives and those of their families – for the expansion of MaineCare, for a livable minimum wage, for continued mental health services and for reducing the stigma and the sense of shame that exists around too many poor and working-class people in this state.

Their success helps all of us. And I urge people to keep this in mind as we consider social welfare policies right now.

Allison Hepler


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